With Puerto Rico and other parts of the world devastated by environmental disasters and the health care of millions of Americans on the line, the so-called President of the United States, Donald Trump, saw fit to focus his attention on football this weekend. In his typical ego-driven style, Trump inserted himself into the center of the ongoing protests against racism by NFL player Colin Kaepernick and others. He claims he’s out to defend America’s honor. What Trump’s really up to, though, is stopping any discussion of the pervasive power of racism in this country.
Over the last several weeks, and especially since the racist riots in Charlottesville, Trump has repeatedly attacked the livelihood of Black athletes and journalists who dare to use their platforms to speak out against systemic racism in the United States.
Trump and his administration have launched a public campaign to vilify these individuals, deliberately counterposing their principled protests for equality and justice to his own empty idea of what counts as “patriotism.” It is imperative to see that this is part of the administration’s continued push to normalize and enable white supremacy and oppression through the silencing of voices of resistance.
Trump, and those surrounding him, have continued to suggest that “great American values” are only for those who go along with the status quo and don’t speak out against injustice. Trump wraps himself in the flag and sets himself up as judge of who the real Americans are.
A few weeks ago, he called for the firing of Jemele Hill, an ESPN journalist, and Black woman, for tweeting her opinion on her personal social media account. In the offending tweet, Hill called it like she saw it, noting, “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself [with] other white supremacists.”
In the past week, at a rally in Alabama, Trump made a public call for NFL owners to fire any athletes bold enough to exercise their freedom of speech. He said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired.” So now it’s not just the players who are in his crosshairs, so are their mothers. This latest Trump outburst has sparked outrage, with the hashtag #TakeAKnee taking off on social media as a challenge Trump’s assertions.
Along with this, other players and athletes have now joined in, supporting those who choose to kneel. The “disrespecting” of the flag that Trump is so eager to criticize is the peaceful protest started by Kaepernick a year ago. At the beginning of last season, Kaepernick began first sitting and then kneeling on one knee during the national anthem in order to bring attention to the police brutality and racism suffered by Black Americans in the United States.
This weekend’s tirade in Louisville wasn’t the first time that Trump has taken aim at Kaepernick and those in the Black Lives Matter movement, though. As reported back in August, Trump went on record condemning Kaepernick’s protest while also taking credit for the player still being without a team. In a speech in Louisville, he used the fact that no team had yet signed Kaepernick to push a false narrative that the simple act of standing up for the American flag equates to patriotism.
Trump’s attack against Black NFL players and sports journalists should not be seen as separate from the bigger attacks on working people and people of color that his White House has perpetrated through its policies and executive orders.
The fight for Black athletes’ right to use the platforms available to them to protest inequality and racism is a part of the same struggle others are going through as they fight to maintain their livelihood while pushing for progress. This isn’t a “distraction” from the bigger issues, but a piece of the larger puzzle the Trump administration has assembled in its effort to create a narrative of normalized racism and division.
Since coming to office, Trump and his Republican Party have pursued an extreme right-wing agenda that aims to do away with the progress made on civil rights, environmental justice, and the protection of working people’s standards of living. We’ve already seen examples of this with the attack on immigrants through termination of DACA, the push for travel bans on Muslims, the drive for national right-to-work, and the attacks on women’s safety from sexual assault, to name just a few.
This right-wing agenda also includes the revving up of systemic racism and the prison-industrial complex.The administration is now making moves to bring back the racist “War on Drugs”, which was responsible for the mass incarceration of millions of Black Americans and other people of color. Trump not only refuses to speak up against police brutality, he actually encouraged it in a recent speech to police.
These attacks are being coupled with public lies, actual fake news (not the kind Trump talks about), and white nationalist rhetoric. None of this is coincidental; it is on purpose. The counterposing of the fight for Black lives and safety to patriotism is deliberate. Trump is using sports to push an “us versus them” conflict through a cynical and manipulative use of patriotic sentiment.
He and his administration want to make it clear that when you speak up against racism, you are “un-American” and therefore part of the problem. Protest against racism, not racism itself, becomes the great villain. He and his administration are going after Black athletes and members of the press to deter others from joining the fight against him.
It’s about intimidation. The current White House is set on deeply dividing people, and it is doing so by strengthening its white nationalist and conservative base through stoking racism, sexism, hate, and fear.
Trump understands the power of media and public platforms. It is why he continues to use Twitter, his rally speeches, and other means to directly speak to his public. And it is precisely because he realizes the power of public discourse that he wants to do away with anyone using it to oppose his agenda, such as NFL athletes and journalists. It is also why he has worked hard to insert his spin on the meaning of protest, making it un-American. This false narrative must be countered.
Kaepernick and others began their protest to bring attention to the deaths of Black men and women by the hands of police. Their action was an act of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in its effort to empower Black people and other people of color in the push for reform of the criminal justice system.
Trump would have the public believe that Kaepernick and others hate the United States and are disrespecting veterans. In reality, they are simply fighting for the right of Black people to exist without being subjected to violence and persecution. They are challenging the symbolism of the national anthem and the American flag, pushing us all to question whether the country is living up to the freedom and equality they are supposed to represent.
This has to be remembered when showing solidarity with those kneeling. Trump tried to make the whole controversy about himself and some warped sense of American values. This administration doesn’t want the discussion of race to be front and center because that would be a step in the direction of dismantling one of the main tools of capitalism—racism, which seeks to divide working people based on skin color.
Trump tweeted, “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!”
This is a lie. It has everything to do with race.
Trump and his supporters would have you believe that since some of these players make millions of dollars, they have no right to speak up against racial injustice, as though the size of their bank accounts makes them immune from racism and police brutality.
The NFL is 70 percent Black. The population of people that predominate in this professional sport are part of a group disproportionately affected by police brutality in this country. Black men are three times as likely to die from police use of force. Some of these players might be wealthy, but they are still Black.
Trump uses his platform to pretend he is speaking for the “forgotten” white man, but these NFL players are speaking up for Black Americans who really are persecuted by a system that has profited from their labor. Capitalism exploits all workers, sports players included. NFL owners have made public statements to condemn Trump’s words, but given that many donated to the Republican’s campaign, their words ring hollow.
The expressions of solidarity by other NFL players with those who have already kneeled is a start, but in order to make it count, the discussion of systemic racism must remain central.
As DeMaurice Smith, the president of the NFL Players’ union, said recently:
“We will never back down. We no longer can afford to stick to sports… [The players] are part of a legacy of athletes in all sports who throughout history chose to be informed about the issues that impact them and their communities. They chose—and still choose today—to do something about those issues rather than comfortably living in the bubble of sports.”
The players must be allowed to continue their protest, while the public continues to challenge Trump’s bullying and intimidation tactics. This goes beyond sports. The fight for racial justice shouldn’t be forgotten or swept under the rug when the game is on. If it is, we will all lose.
This article originally appeared in People’s World